Authorization of Russian protests in the early 2010s

By Lia Sokol

The early 2010s brought the biggest wave of protests to Russia since the 1990s. Perhaps the most well-known protests occurred in 2011-12, spurred by claims that the 2011 Duma election had been flawed. Beyond these events, other waves of activism and isolated protests took place across the country.

News stories from offer rich insights into the spectrum of factors that prompted the public to take to the streets in the early 2010s. For example, protests in memory of Egor Sviridov, a football fan who was killed in a clash and whose killers were released, drew large crowds in the streets of Moscow in early 2011. Protests were also organized in response to the liquidation of flower kiosks, the dismissal of employees, and problems in the housing sector. These events, organized mainly by private citizens, suggest that issues that affect citizens directly and perceived injustices motivate protest participation – even in an authoritarian setting.

Though many protests, like those above, were not in opposition to the Putin regime, various groups organized protests that expressed more direct political opposition to the government. Several of them had failed to secure protest permits. Indeed, the majority of the groups organizing unauthorized protests in Russia in the early 2010s consisted of non-systemic opposition actors – political parties that were not formally represented in parliament – and local activist groups.

Most unauthorized protests in 2011 were organized by the Strategy-31 and ‘Day of Wrath’ movements, which advocated respectively for freedom of protest and a change in the country’s leadership. Protests by the two movements were designed to be recurring monthly events: Strategy-31 protests occurred on the last day of every month with 31 days, while the ‘Day of Wrath’ organizers recalibrated the action to occur on the 12th of every month starting in 2011. This tactic of scheduling protests on specific dates can be seen across authoritarian regimes. Recurrent events facilitate protest coordination in an otherwise hostile environment. During the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East, for example, Fridays – a day of prayer – became a day of recurring mobilization.

When Russian officials refused to authorize a protest, they often provided specific reasons to justify the ban. Many of these had the appearance of legitimacy, with authorities citing other events occurring at the same time as the requested protest or raising concerns for overcrowding. However, a closer look at activist responses to these reasons reveals that they were generally artificial. For example, one protest permit was denied due to an event for government officials meant to take place at the same time; there was no record of such an event on any government website. Other protests were denied authorization because the square that had been requested was scheduled to be snow plowed at that specific time; in some cases, no other time for snow removal – or for the protest – was found acceptable.

Altogether, a study of the protest authorization process in Russia helps better understand the various strategies the country’s government uses to repress dissent. More broadly, this shows the means by which authoritarian governments use the law and administrative processes to limit and change the actions of opposition movements.